At this year’s Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, the Oculus team is showing off its latest collaboration. Called Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series, it’s a cutting edge virtual reality game that allows players to live out the fantasy of fighting with a lightsaber. After spending some time with it during a short demo, I walked away extremely impressed.
What makes Vader Immortal so interesting is the blend of haptics and sound design, both of which will see an upgrade with the new Oculus Quest and Rift S when they are released this spring.
One of the intractable issues with melee-focused VR games is the matter of feedback. When swords clash in games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim VR, for instance, it feels fake and floaty. The controllers have very little heft to them, and there’s nothing pushing back when a blade connects.
The same is true of the new motion controllers bundled with the Oculus Quest, of course. They are little plastic things barely larger than a pistol grip, but with one key exception. Each one has built-in vibration. Igniting the saber, I was greeted with a constant thrum in my right hand. Then, when I instinctively went to take a two-handed grip, that vibration extended to my left. When I went to swing the blade around, like I’d done thousands of times as a child, I could hear its solid arc of energy humming and whistling as it passed by my ear.
While the in-game enemies didn’t push back at me, the blade itself felt alive. And that was enough to suspend my disbelief and leave me delighted.
Colum Slevin, head of media, AR/VR experiences at Facebook, said he was just as surprised as anyone at how immersive the experience can be. He gives much of that credit to his collaborators on the project, LucasFilm’s ILMxLAB, a specialized team of engineers and storytellers focused on the AR and VR space.
“One of the most exciting things we get to see is the alchemy that happens when you put hardware and developers and storytellers together,” Slevin told me, during our interview at Celebration. “The specifications of the device on paper or in silicon are one thing. And they tell you a certain story. ‘Here’s what we think it’s going to be able to do.’ And then these guys take it and they do things that you just don’t expect.”
The Oculus Quest was designed to be a stand-alone device, one entirely without the need for a gaming computer or even a handheld device to serve as its screen. When it releases later this year, Facebook hopes it will extend the install base for VR much wider than it is right now. Experiences like Vader Immortal, which will ship with an “endless” lightsaber dojo experience, are sure to help.
“With the Quest, we had a thesis that [it] would allow a degree of unconstrained movements because of the lack of tethers that would be very much sort of simpatico with the physical motion of lightsaber combat and moving around,” Slevin said. “The visuals that we’ve seen [ILMxLAB] produce and we’ve seen manifest in what you just saw in the demo are astounding and frankly astonish us.”
But Vader Immortal also brings a degree of risk for LucasFilm. Darth Vader is a keystone in the Star Wars franchise, and recent explorations of his character have shown him to be a thrilling and dynamic character, ever more than 40 years after he first appeared on screen.
Most recently, audiences cheered as the dark lord of the Sith eviscerated a dozen or more Rebel troops at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Now, Oculus and ILMxLAB will put players in the same room with him, and arm them both.
Luckily, the’ve found the right man for the job in Mohen Leo. The LucasFilm employee served as the visual effects supervisor on Rogue One. For Vader Immortal, he’s handling the game’s narrative design.
“I was actually on set when we shot the final scenes of Rogue One,” Leo told me. “The origin of this project happened while we were also working on Rogue One. While I was on set and seeing the sets of Vader’s castle, people in San Francisco started talking about, ‘Oh, we should do a VR experience.’
“A lot of what Vader Immortal became was inspired by those first glimpses of Vader’s castle,” Leo continued. “I think, certainly, one thing that Rogue One did with that final scene is an expectation to see Vader be awesome, and so we have to deliver on that as well.”
Vader Immortal will have three narrative episodes, each roughly one hour long, in addition to the lightsaber dojo. No release date has been set.